Cranky Old Man: Editing Software Edition

Before I go any farther, know this: I am not anti-technology by any means.  For one, I blog.  Okay, I don’t blog as much as I could, but I do blog.  In three places.  I use twitter.  I have my own dot-com website.  I do IT support for a living.  For goodness’ sake, I put Linux on things for fun.

With all that said, I think there are some places that computers don’t belong, and one of those is editing.  I don’t mean that you shouldn’t use computers to enter changes on a manuscript or even that you shouldn’t review your work on a screen (I work better when I have physical margins to scribble in, but that’s personal preference).  What I mean is that a computer shouldn’t be doing your copy-editing or proofreading for you.  Ever.

I’m getting onto this now because I’m active on the NaNoWriMo forums, mostly in the technology section, and the other day I saw someone asking about a program that could show them when they were repeating words/phrases too often.  The first reply suggested a service called Grammarly, a paid, cloud-based editing/proofreading service which is apparently used by a number of colleges and universities in the US and Canada.  The OP on the thread replied that they had visited the site, which offers potential customers the chance to try the service out, and plugged in a few paragraphs of one of their pieces, only to have it report over forty “critical writing issues,” which seemed to put them in something of a state.

Curious about what this thing could tell me about my own writing, I copied one of my short stories over onto the site and hit go.  This started a progress bar that crept across the window, with text flashing by below it telling me what it was checking for.  After a minute, I was directed to a report page telling me that I had over fifty critical writing issues and a few dozen word-choice suggestions.  Below that, the piece was rated on a scale of 0-100–I think I got around a 20 (weak, needs revision), followed by a breakdown of the critical issues, divided into a number of sections and sub-sections.  Since this was the free trial, they weren’t going to go into specifics of where the exact issues were found, but the breakdown was enough for me.

Now I’ not sour-grapes about this assessment of the piece–I plugged in a story I’m getting paid for, so someone besides me liked it enough to offer me money to print the thing.  The top section of the breakdown checks your work for plagiarism against a database of apparently billions of sources, and while I’m interested to see what in my story (which is currently waiting to see press) was considered unoriginal text, I’m not nearly interested enough to pay money to find out.  What got me, though, was the last section: Style and Word Choice.  This section, broken up into writing style and vocabulary use is where over half of my issues came from.  And not just in the one piece.  I ran several other stories and essays, and an early draft of the start of this post through the thing, and every time, over half of my “critical issues” came from writing style.  Of course, naturally, my first reaction was to say to Grammarly, “Hey, fuck you!  Who are you to judge my writing style?”  As one does.  Then I got to thinking; how many people, how many writers run their text through this thing and change their stuff by slavishly following the style suggestions set forth just so that they can cut down the number of critical writing issues that they have and boost the score given for their pieces?

This thing is killing writers’ voices.  Worse, since my guess is that it’s mostly used by aspiring writers, not professionals, it’s potentially killing the sorts of new voices that are critical to the growth of every genre.  While I don’t think a computer program is really suitable for assessing any sort of writing, it’s especially ill-suited to assessing creative writing.  Based on the free assessment available at their website, Grammarly thinks that Joyce’s “The Dead,” forty of the finest pages of prose ever written in English, is weak and needs revision.  Dickens’ “The Signal-Man” doesn’t fare much better.  Neither does the first chapter of The Hobbit.

I don’t know how Grammarly does its math in terms of assigning a score to a piece of writing.  It may weight apparent plagiarism more heavily than, say, a comma-splice, which is fair, since the first one can have some pretty serious ramifications, whereas the second is likely only to get Dr. Bradshaw to write “Major Error” on your paper.  Then again, that’s its own major consequence.  Nobody wants to disappoint Bradshaw.  Still, in this pre-Singularity world, I don’t think that whatever fake intelligence there is in Grammarly’s algorithms should be the be-all and end-all of editing.  Even feedback from a human editor, whether that’s your friend, your mother, or a professor, should be taken with at least a grain of salt.  Everyone’s tastes are different from your own to some degree; the difference between another person’s editing your work and having a program look it over is that the program will give you back instant, numerical feedback–instant gratification.  It can be very easy to fall into the trap of just trying to raise your score without thinking too hard.  If you’ve been in school for most of your life, if you are still in school, then this is especially the case.

The ultimate problem with things like Grammarly is that they offer an easy way out for budding writers who want to get “better” without putting in the work.  There is no easy way.  I’ve been writing with the aim of being a professional writer for most of a decade, and I’ve gotten a lot better in that time (I cringe sometimes when I read early drafts of my earliest stories), but it’s taken me time and work to get to where I am now, and even now I know that I have a lot more potential to grow my writing.  I don’t know if I would have made this much progress in this time frame if I had been presented with something like Grammarly that would give me a score and tell me, “here are the ways you can boost your score.”

And let’s not even start with the fact that a computer can’t make sense of a story, let alone appreciate it.  At least not yet.  Your writing can be mechanically flawless, but your story can still be total shit, and Grammarly will never tell you.  Likewise, your writing can be “perfect” by whatever math Grammarly uses and have no soul.  You could start with some soul to your piece, even, and I can see that easily getting lost in the quest to make everything “right.”  You are the author, at the end of the day, you write what is right.  You can go back and change that in a later draft, but let that be your own decision, not something dictated to you by a soulless program.  Get your story down first, then make it the best story you can manage.  Make somebody cry or laugh or cheer, then worry about the mechanics, and if adhering to those mechanics takes that spark from your story, then fuck ’em.  Any editor worth anything would rather have a story that took liberties with grammar and standard English construction but made them feel something than a mechanically perfect story that left them bored.

That is all.


About Hilary B. Bisenieks

Hilary B. Bisenieks (Biss-en-yex) n. 1. An author of fact, fancy, and opinion based out of Oakland, CA. 2. A graduate of the Creative Writing program at Warren Wilson college and Mary Robinette Kowal's Short Story Workshop. 3. A man unable to be trusted to update basic biographical information with any regularity. View all posts by Hilary B. Bisenieks

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